Possible risks and complications of surgery

Your doctors will discuss your risks of having surgery when you give your consent to go ahead with the operation and it is important to remember that not all patients will experience these complications.

On this page:

Anastomotic leak

Delayed emptying of the stomach

Chyle leak

Bleeding

Chest infections

Problems with food absorption

Sources of support

Anastomotic leak

By far the most important complication following a Whipple’s procedure or other pancreatic surgery is where one of the anastomosis (the joins between either the bowel and the liver and pancreas) do not heal properly, allowing the contents to leak out.  If a leak does occur then you may need to stay in hospital longer than planned. These leaks usually dry up. Very rarely drains may need to be placed in the tummy and in exceptional circumstances, a second operation may be needed.  You might have an x-ray to ensure the drain is put in the right place. Sometimes leaks heal on  their own, but this takes time. Leaks from the pancreas can be serious as the pancreas releases digestive enzymes which can damage nearby tissue.

Delayed emptying of the stomach

Sometimes your stomach may take longer to adapt to the changes after surgery and your food may not be able to pass through efficiently. You may need to stick to a liquid-only diet only for a while.  Alternatively, you may need to take your nourishment through a naso-gastric tube (a feeding tube in the nose) until this resolves.

Chyle leak

Some patients may produce a milky type of fluid (chyle) into their abdominal drain after surgery.  Chyle is lymphatic fluid that can build up in the tummy following injury or surgery.  This is treated by reducing the amount of food you eat for a period of time. Your dietitian or surgeon may feel that you should have artificial feeding during this period, such as a feeding tube, to support your nutrition intake.

Bleeding

Any operation carries a risk of bleeding after surgery.  A radiological procedure to block the bleeding vessel without operating (embolization) may be needed.  In exceptional circumstances an operation may be needed to control the bleeding.

Chest infections

It is possible to develop a chest infection following an operation, especially if you are a smoker. To minimise your risk, a physiotherapist will visit you after your operation to help you to cough and breathe properly.

Problems with food absorption

When you have had part of your pancreas removed, you may notice your stools (motions) have become pale, loose and greasy. You can correct this by taking a pancreatic enzyme capsule, which will help you to digest it.  Your medical team will tell you how and when to take these.

Sources of support

The links below are to some organisations who may be able to help:

Pancreatic Cancer Action

Helpline: 0303 040 1770

Clinical trials information

Our website contains information on clinical trials.

EUROPAC (European registry of Hereditary Pancreatitis and Familial Pancreatic Cancer)

This is the co-ordinating centre for secondary screening of pancreatic cancer in the UK

Net Patient Foundation

Support and information for patients with the more rare form of pancreatic cancer: neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer

Macmillan Cancer  Support

Helpline: 0808 808 0000

Maggie’s Centres

The information provided in this site, or through links to other websites, is not a substitute for medical or professional care and should not be relied upon as such. Read our disclaimer.

Sources and references for this information product will be supplied on request. Please contact us quoting the Information Product number below:

Information Product No. PCA0012 v1 pgs 26 - 27, 36 | Published: 15/10/2019 | Last Updated: 16/10/2019 | Next Review Due: 15/10/2022